Dueling tea parties and a looming civil war enliven Dickinson [Apple TV+ review]

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Dickinson review: Civil war is brewing in season 2.
A civil war is brewing.
Photo: Apple TV+

On this week’s episode of Apple TV+’s millennial melodrama Dickinson, Austin’s drowning, Emily’s flailing, Mrs. Dickinson’s catering two tea parties, and John Brown’s raiding Harper’s Ferry. And that’s just in the first few minutes.

The future hangs in the balance. And with only two episodes left in the show’s second season, every action and word counts. The show only wastes some of them.

Dickinson review: ‘I Like a Look of Agony’

All this season, Austin (played by Adrian Enscoe), through Henry (Chinaza Uche), has been helping funnel money to the abolitionist efforts of violent firebrand John Brown. Brown’s life-ending career as an avenging angel was lately documented in Showtime’s beautiful limited series The Good Lord Bird with Ethan Hawke.

In case you missed that (which … go watch it right now), Brown took money and guns to seize an armory and use the territory they seized as a base for anyone who wanted to join the cause and dismantle the machinery of slavery. It failed miserably but helped start the Civil War.

Secretly funding Brown has been the one thing making Austin sympathetic this whole season of Dickinson. And, finally, he looks like the good guy after weeks of neglecting Sue. Henry flees town after Brown meets his fate, fearing his contributions to the effort will be traced back to the Dickinson barn and he and his family will be punished. Austin wisely keeps up a front of business-minded efficacy to hide how scared he is at this turn of events.

Hiding like some mad woman in an attic

Jane Krakowski is as strong and harried as ever in this week's episode of Dickinson.
Jane Krakowski is as strong and harried as ever in this week’s episode.
Photo: Apple TV+

Sue, feeling guilty about her affair with Samuel Bowles (Finn Jones) and wanting to escape her house and Austin, goes to visit with Samuel’s wife, Mary (Marié Botha), whom she knew when they were both young orphans. When Mary confides that she suspects that Emily has detained her husband, Sue thinks she means that Mary has discovered her affair with Samuel.

Jane Krakowski, who plays Mrs. Dickinson, is in fine form catering both Austin’s abolitionist-friendly tea party and Samuel and her husband’s pro-war party. Both Samuel and Mr. Dickinson (Toby Huss) see that the burgeoning conflict will be great for newspaper circulation. Both Jones and Huss have been great all season, neither standing out nor distracting from the other performances. Showing them elated, teeth bared with excitement for war and what it portends for the paper, contrasted with Krakowski’s cracking facade of gentility, is a compelling dynamic.

Oh, Lavinia and Joe are still deciding whether they want to be together, in case there’s a single viewer still interested in that.

Push the pain away

Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) is barely in this episode, only showing up in the third act to mope at Austin’s tea party and to meet his former classmate Frazar Stearns … who just so happens to be the ghostly man (Will Pullen) who’s been appearing in Emily’s unconsciousness the whole season. What this portends is unclear, but she has a meltdown telling him how he’s going to die.

There isn’t much thematic work done here. It’s mostly about people feeling bad about themselves for actions taken during the season, which makes it less cute and a little more captivating than most of what’s preceded it. As this season’s penultimate episode ends, Dickinson seems to have a lot left to do and little time to do it. The show’s creators could still manage a satisfying conclusion next week. Or, at bottom, a hell of a cliffhanger if they work at it.

This week in millennial speak

Austin’s tea party is filled with his college friends, which means we must endure a few minutes of modern frat-house talk. “I heard we were havin’ a bro hang!” “Way to kill the mood, bro!” “Those scones are dope!” There’s even a Blue Apron joke.

Dickinson season 2 on Apple TV+

New episodes of Dickinson arrive on Apple TV+ each Friday.

Rated: TV-14

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.